Excerpt of The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
(Page 2 of 10)
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So he had gone to see the film the next week, to prove something. He arrived
early and slipped into a seat towards the rear, hoping it would be a small
crowd, but by the time the main feature began the theater was full. He sat
through the first half hour, his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed tightly to
avoid any contact with the fellows sitting on either side of him. They were with
their girlfriends it had been a mistake to sit near the back and when, after
about ten minutes, the boy to his left started to kiss his girl, Rotheram didnt
know what was making him more uncomfortable, the film or the couple. He was
actually grateful when someone behind them harrumphed loudly, Show some
respect. When twenty minutes later the boy on his right tried something,
Rotheram distinctly heard the girl slap the fellows hand away.
By then, though, he was caught up in the film, its ecstatic pageantry. The
fervent masses on the screen seemed to merge with the crowd around him in the
theater. It might have been the two couples flanking him, but by the time the
film was over he felt violently lonely. He wanted to have even a bit part in
this great drama, and for a brief while in the darkened cinema, invisible in his
seat, he felt as if he did. But then the lights came up and he hurried out,
panicked by the sudden piercing thought that, if he could, he would want nothing
more than to join the Nazis. In his haste, he trod on the toes of one of the
girls, fleeing before he could apologize, fleeing from her little hiss of anger,
her pointing finger. Outside, he must have run half a mile, feeling as if the
crowd were at his back, ready to kill him for stepping on some girls toes.
That was the day he realized he and his mother would have to leave.
It was her old Canadian connections that made it possible for them to come to
England. Rotheram wondered what his father, killed at Verdun, would have made of
that. Conceived in 1915 during his fathers last leave, Rotheram had never met
the man, although he still kept his frayed campaign ribbons pressed in his
wallet, as proud of them as he was ashamed of having run from Germany.
Hed shown them, with a kind of shy defiance, to Colonel Hawkins one night in
1941, shortly after he d been seconded to the Political Intelligence Division
as a document translator.
Ypres? The old man had whistled in admiration, pointing to one decoration.
Lord, we might have traded potshots. Staunch soldiers, those fellows. Took
everything we threw at them.
Rotherams mother had been killed in the Blitz months earlier, and it was the
first time he d talked about his father to anyone since.
Neither fish nor fowl, eh? Hawkins said when he told him his background, and
Rotheram nodded. He still wasnt sure what he could call himself not German,
not Jewish but serving under the CO, he d felt for the first time as if he
werent running from something, but being led somewhere.
Back in 1941, the war had seemed as good as lost, the papers filled with
defeats, yet Hawkins was winning small victories every few days across the
interrogation table. The first story Rotheram heard about him was how he once
questioned a suspected spy for thirteen hours straight, cracking him in the end
only when he told the man he was free to go told him in German, that is and
saw the fellows shoulders sag in relief. Hawkins made winning the war seem a
matter of wit and will, and Rotheram had been thrilled when the CO personally
selected him from the translation pool to sit in on interrogations. Hawkins
spoke excellent German himself, of course he made Rotheram self-conscious of
his own accented English but he didnt always want to let on to the prisoners.
Helps sometimes to let them think they know more than me. It was a tactic he
d learned from his days as a journalist between the wars. Springing his German
on them when they werent expecting it was one of his simpler tricks.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton